If Las Vegas is right, we’re in for some pretty close conference title games this weekend. The Cincinnati Bengals, who opened as a 1.5-point road underdog against the Kansas City Chiefs, are now a 1.5-point favorite as the health of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (high ankle sprain) is in question. In the NFC, the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles are a 2.5-point favorite over rookie quarterback Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers.
With the two conference championships ahead of us, we’ll take a look back at five of the greatest AFC Championship Games in NFL history in no particular order.
New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Jan. 24, 2016
Peyton Manning was on his last leg, and Tom Brady still had more Super Bowl titles ahead of him. The two squared off for the final time, and it was another classic.
Playing in front of a raucous Denver crowd, the Broncos defense, led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, hounded Brady all game. Denver held a 17-12 lead after three quarters and made it 20-12 after Brandon McManus booted a 31-yard field goal with 10:02 left to play.
With 12 seconds remaining, Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for a touchdown. The Patriots needed to go for two points to tie because kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in 524 attempts in the first quarter. Brady’s conversion pass was deflected by Aqib Talib, and the Broncos headed to the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs, Jan. 20, 2019
Chiefs fans are likely still livid over this one. The visiting Patriots benefited from a pair of replay decisions to pull out a 37-31 overtime victory. A muffed punt by Julian Edelman that officials took forever to review was overturned, although the Chiefs intercepted Brady immediately after, setting up a go-ahead score.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid also challenged a questionable catch by Patriots receiver Chris Hogan as the ball appeared to have touched the ground. Reid lost the challenge, and Chiefs fans lost their minds.
The Patriots were also the beneficiary of a phantom roughing-the-passer call against Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones. The call kept a New England drive alive, giving them an automatic first down. Sony Michel scored with 3:32 left to put New England in front 24-21.
With 2:03 left, Damien Williams scored his third touchdown of the game for Kansas City, giving the Chiefs a 28-24 lead. An offside call on KC’s Dee Ford negated a Brady interception that likely would have sealed the Chiefs win. Instead, Rex Burkhead scored with 39 seconds left.
Harrison Butker booted a game-tying field goal, but Burkhead scored in overtime, without the Chiefs touching the ball.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, Jan. 21, 2007
At one point, the Indianapolis Colts trailed the Patriots by 18 points in the second quarter, but Peyton Manning rallied the team and handed the Pats their first conference title loss in six tries.
Manning engineered the winning drive that was capped by a Joseph Addai 3-yard touchdown run with a minute remaining to give the Colts their first lead of the game at 38-34. That lead stood up as the Colts, under head coach Tony Dungy, headed to the Super Bowl.
The Colts outscored the Patriots 32-13 in the second half, and Manning found a way to beat Brady and the Patriots with his 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.
Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns, Jan. 11, 1987
If you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, you might want to ignore these next two. John Elway and the Denver Broncos offense were struggling mightily and had their backs against the wall against the Cleveland Browns. The Browns were the top seed and Denver was No. 2.
The Broncos were pinned at their own 2-yard line with 5:32 to go and trailed 20-13. Running back Sammy Winder barely picked up third-and-2 with a 2-yard run to keep what would be a long, methodical drive going. Elway used his legs to scramble for a first down and then hit two straight passes to set the Broncos up first-and-10 from the Cleveland 40 at the two-minute warning.
After a sack on second down, the Broncos faced third-and-18, but Elway found Mark Jackson for a 20-yard gain, putting Denver at the Cleveland 28 with 1:19 to go. On second and-10, Elway connected with Steve Sewell on 14-yard play for another first down.
On third-and-1 from the 5, Elway hit Jackson for the game-tying score with 31 seconds left. Elway then took the Broncos 60 yards on Denver’s first drive of overtime, setting up Rich Karlis’ game-winning field goal.
Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos, Jan. 17, 1988
If “The Drive” wasn’t enough pain for you as a Browns fan, “The Fumble” had to push you over the edge the following season. The Broncos and Browns met again for the right to go to the Super Bowl, this time in Denver.
It looked as if there would be no heartbreak this year for the Browns, who trailed 21-3 at the half and 28-10 in the third quarter. Earnest Byner then caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar and then added a 4-yard TD run to cut the Browns deficit to 28-24.
After a Rich Karlis field goal put Denver up 31-24, Kosar hit Webster Slaughter for a game-tying score in the fourth quarter. Elway struck back by hitting Sammy Winder with a 20-yard scoring strike to make it 38-31.
The Browns marched right down the field looking to tie the game. With 1:12 left, Byner took a handoff from Kosar on a draw play. As he approached the 1-yard line, Jeremiah Castille jarred the ball loose and the Broncos recovered. The Broncos took a safety to account for the final 38-33 margin.
Byner took a lot of heat in that game after leading the team in receiving with 120 yards on seven catches.
“After the fumble I was never as free of a football player,” he said in a 2016 ESPN story. “I was still playing good, and I was still playing at a high level. Because of how I took that and how I allowed other people to influence how I took it, it was something that did really start to kind of take (over) me from inside out. I had to actually forgive myself after a while.”